Last night Delphine and I went to the opera. This March Break Delphine attended Opera Camp at the COC, and one of the perks was a pair of tickets to the dress rehearsal of the opera she studied at camp, Puccini's Gianni Schicchi. It's an opera in one act, and the other half of the bill was Alexander Zemlinsky's A Florentine Tragedy.
The Zemlinsky was first, which put a bit of a spanner into our plan to leave at intermission in case of extreme boredom or fatigue. Fortunately there was neither, despite A Florentine Tragedy being a bit, um, challenging.
Delphine and I read the synopses over before the show and decided A Florentine Tragedy sounded more like a comedy. A merchant walks in on his wife and her lover. (Delphine says "boyfriend".) The merchant decides the wife isn't really having an affair, so he tries to sell the other man some merchandise. The boyfriend says sure, he'll buy it and then offers the merchant even more money. The merchant says the boyfriend can have the whole house! The boyfriend says he wants the wife! The man says his wife is only good for housework, and then tells her to sew something! (Actually spin, but Delphine thought sew.) The men drink wine and then fight, and the man kills the boyfriend. The wife says, "I didn't realize you were so strong!", and the man says, "I didn't realize you were so beautiful!" Their love is renewed!
(It makes much more sense now that I know it's based on a play by Oscar Wilde.)
After we had a giggle at the synopsis we watched the real thing. Delphine is very attentive at musical performances, and she was rapt through the whole show — except at the end with the fighting, when she "shut up", as she calls it: closed her eyes and blocked her ears.
As I said, it was pretty challenging: discordant and free of any melody to speak of, grim and dark. But we've been going to Music and Truffles for a few years, and they're not shy about throwing all kinds of crazy music at kids; Delphine doesn't seem to mind it. The direction and staging was interesting — the acting was stylized and melodramatic, with many poses being struck. At several points the performers created dramatic shadows and silhouettes.
After the show ("That was creepy.") we met up with Tanya and Ursa and explored the Four Seasons Centre. We asked the girls if they wanted to stay for the second show, and there was jumping and glee.
Gianni Schicchi was entirely opposite to A Florentine Tragedy: Italian, not German; sunny, not dark; comic, not tragic; a cast of many compared with a cast of three; natural rather than melodramatic acting. It was a perfect double-bill for the circumstances: if the girls never go to another opera they will have a pretty good idea of what opera is about.
The direction for Schicchi was great — broad without being ridiculous. Special credit goes to the supernumary playing Buoso Donati, who had to die in the first few minutes of the opera and then be manipulated for the rest of the show, ultimately being wrapped up and folded into a sofa bed.
Also in the opera were Simone Osborne playing Lauretta, who was adorable (and sung beautifully) and Peter McGillivray as Marco. He's performed with my choir a couple of times and is also great. I also enjoyed the performance of Marco's wife, La Ciesca, by Rihab Chaieb. And everyone else was really good, too. (Not that I'm a connoisseur — I'm pretty happy as long as no-one goes flat or falls off the stage.)
The show ended around 10:00 and we were home by 11:00, which is the latest Delphine has ever been up, ever. She was hungry (if you stay up late enough you get hungry all over again!) so we had a piece of toast and went off to bed, full of the satisfaction of an adventure successfully completed.
About a week and a half ago our cheap little washing machine started making an alarming grindy noise when it was draining, and then the day before Blake left on business it decided it wasn't going to drain at all; the clothes were left to wallow in a puddle of soapy water at the end of the load.
There's a drain outlet with a filter on the front of the machine which catches little bits of crap you've left in your pockets, fluff and soapy slime; we opened that and a whole wash-load of water flooded out. Fortunately the washer lives in our unfinished basement right by a drain, so the water found a good home without destroying anything on the way. The filter had caught a whole lot of safety pins, beads and bobby pins (damn you, ballet); I guess they mean it when they say you have to clear it out every month.
So we headed downstairs and starting taking the thing apart; we removed the back panel, disconnected all the bits of drain pipe we could make sense of, and failed to find any obvious blockages or other visible problems. That left the pump, which looked okay, but then that's the nature of pumps. Having eliminated everything else, we ordered a new pump.
It arrived a couple of days later (I love PartSelect) but Blake was away and I didn't fancy trying to screw the pump to the bottom of the machine without someone to hold it up. So I waited until he got home, and we installed the new pump today. It was tricky and a bit annoying, but not spend-my-debt-paying-money-for-someone-else-to-do-it tricky.
And guess what? It works! The machine is purring happily away, draining like never before, and Blake and I are full of the smug satisfaction that comes from fixing something yourself instead of being suckers and paying someone to unscrew some screws and disconnect some hoses.
The next thing, of course, is to fix the stove...
This afternoon we all went down to the U of T Child Studies Lab (I could be totally making up that name) to participate in some science. We've been on their list since Delphine was a baby, and have participated in a few studies; they're usually fun and interesting—the girls love being guinea pigs. (Except on the way home when they're tired and cranky and hate everything, especially each other.)
Today's study was at a special lab with hidden cameras, in one of those fantastic red brick Victorian (Edwardian?) houses on Spadina.
The study was on lying and tattling. The girls took turns going into the hidden camera room with one of the researchers—I've forgotten all their names because I suck, so let's call her Jenny. Jenny and the girl started drawing pictures, and then another researcher (Michelle!) came in to tell Jenny she had a phone call. Jenny left but not before telling Michelle not to use the paper from the book with stars on it! Only use the paper from the book with the fish on it! Don't forget!
Well, you see where this is going. Sure enough, good old Michelle figured she liked the star paper better, and drew a picture on it; then she decided she didn't like her picture, and threw it out. After all this, Jenny came back into the room and, after Michelle left, asked the girl what had happened when she was away.
(Meanwhile Blake and I were in another room with eight thousand computers, including the monitors for the hidden cameras. We watched the girls while filling out a huge stack of forms and questionnaires on the girls' personalities and our parenting styles.)
Delphine went first. She immediately put her head down and started working intently on her picture. (The kids were asked to draw a picture of their most favourite place; she drew a beach.) She didn't look up or show any sign of noticing the researchers' exchange, to the point that Jenny was very certain to remind Michelle loudly not to use the star paper on the way out the door.
When Michelle used the star paper, Delphine didn't say anything either, and when Jenny later asked what had happened the exchange went something like this:
J: So what happened when I was gone?
D: I just drew a picture.
J: Did Michelle draw anything?
D: Yes, she drew a picture but she threw it away.
J: Did she use the star paper?
Cordelia was a little different. (Cordelia is a little different.) She also set to work drawing a picture of her favourite place—she drew our house. (*melt*) She was much more voluble and animated, though, talking through what she was drawing and why. When Michelle came in, she looked up and paid attention to the whole conversation. Then when Michelle started to use the star paper, Cordelia was quick to remind her that she wasn't supposed to use it.
After Jenny was back in the room, she asked Cordelia the same questions she had asked Delphine:
J: So what happened when I was gone?
C: I just drew my picture! (She still talks all in exclamations, with lots of body language.)
J: Did Michelle draw a picture?
J: She didn't draw anything?
C: She didn't draw anything! (This said with a great big "Who can figure?!" shrug.)
So Cordelia fully lied to a quasi-authority figure, to protect someone she had barely met. It was almost just lying for the sake of it. There was a chart in the room we were in that showed the percentage of kids who lie from ages three to, I think, eight, and almost 100% of six-year-olds lie. I call it "peak lying".
This study was interestingly timed, because I've noticed Cordelia lying more lately. The thing is she's much better at it than Delphine. She tends to lie when it's plausible, and she sticks to her story, often with a touch of righteous indignation to make you feel like a jerk for not trusting her. Hopefully she'll either grow out of it or learn to use her power for good, not evil.
After the study was over, the researchers sat everyone down and explained what had happened, and then sent the girls on a hidden camera hunt. Delphine revealed that she had been a bit suspicious about all the fuss over the paper, and Cordelia looked a bit sheepish.
The end of the story is that the girls got to choose a gift out of a treasure chest to thank them for participating. Delphine chose a "make your own bouncy balls" kit, and Cordelia picked through the entire box before finally seeing and pouncing on a ninja action figure with light-up eyes. ($1.25 at Dollarama!)
Back in 2008 when we moved into this house, we secured a line of credit to use for renovating. It was a deal we made with ourselves—we would spend less money on a house that wasn't "done", and then use secure credit to fund renovations.
And that's exactly what we did. Soon after we moved in, we took down some walls and totally redid the kitchen. And then we gradually paid the loan down; not all the way, but a lot of the way.
Then last year we redid the bathroom and added a powder room in the basement, and now we're in debt again, deep enough that I'm pretty uncomfortable. I'm not a futurist or an economist, but I don't think now is a good time to be deep in debt, even secured debt; jobs are scarce, housing prices are in a bubble, and the economy is in flux. I would rather be in the black.
So we put together an aggressive plan to pay off debt. It took us four months to get into debt; it's going to take us four years to get out of it, assuming we keep to our plan. And as I said, it's aggressive, quite probably unrealistically so; no vacations, no household maintenance, repairs or new furniture; no clothing; no gifts (except the girls' birthdays and Christmas); no veterinary care for Thomas the cat. When we spend on any of those things, it will either be from the $70/week not-otherwise-specified fund, or it will slow down our debt repayment.
Inevitably, mere days after making this plan, the stove and the washer broke and Thomas had to go to the vet.
But we have cast off our North Toronto helplessness; instead of calling a repairman for the appliances we consulted various websites, and there are shiny and complicated parts being shipped here as I type. When they get here we will get our hands greasy, or sticky, or whatever it is, and install them ourselves.
(I know, the thought of amateurs messing around with water and electricity or natural gas is alarming, but I'm confident that helpful YouTube videos will ensure our safety. Unfortunately there is no YouTube video for how to do expensive bloodwork on a domestic cat, so the professionals still have the upper hand in that one. For now.)
As for money in; well, Blake is making as much as is feasible at the moment (with occasional large and surprising bonuses). Now it's up to me to bring in some bacon of my own—or at least tofu. I took a baby step towards that goal this week by getting an IRS EIN, a magical number which allows me to charge Americans money. (Or more specifically, to charge them money and not have them withhold 30% of it.) This is exciting because so far almost all my clients have been American.
The other thing I'm doing is trying to fit more work hours into my week. I had been using my "work" time (i.e., 9:00 am to 3:00 pm) to run errands and do chores, but I've moved a few errands to the weekend and after school. I really like my work-life balance as it is now, but the fact is when you're freelance, only about half your hours are billable. I need to make the number of hours as big as possible, without making myself or the family miserable.
Sometimes I think it would have been better to have bought a house which was all renovated and shiny, and just suffered (in our shiny, renovated house) with a bigger mortgage. But we didn't, and now we have this shabby little house with no family room, and a huge debt. It is what it is, and at least we're fairly young and have a chance of pulling ourselves out of this mess before it's time to retire!
Well, wasn't 2011 a piece of work? Lots of things happened, some great and some lousy. Let's start at the beginning.
In January we were taking Thomas the cat to the vet for excessive skinniness, strange loss of hair and general geriatric decrepitude. It turned out he had fleas, some kind of allergy which was giving him red spots all over, and lots of weird growths here and there: under his tongue, on his head, and probably in his bowel too. We treated him for fleas and gave him antibiotics for a while to clear up his skin problems, and put him on a permanent course of prednisone to treat his various tumours. (He's eighteen years old, so the growths are just because of old age.) We prepared ourselves for his imminent death; however, a full year later he's not dead yet, and indeed seems healthier than ever.
At the end of January Blake took off for Hawaii for work. I wasn't invited, which was particularly galling given that, you know, Hawaii in January. Not to mention, we hadn't been on a proper not-visiting-mum trip since before Cordelia was born. So come March Break I decided we should go to New York for the week. That holiday was more successful and fun than I expected it to be—the girls are at the perfect age to travel with. (Which is a bit ironic, now that I think about it, considering we won't have the money to go anywhere in the forseeable future.)
In May Greg Wilson and I
published the paperback edition of
The Architecture of Open Source
Applications (Volume 1). In the process of publishing the book
I learned an immense amount about TeX, typesetting, book production
and publishing on Lulu.com, as well as getting a lead on
a copyediting job. I enjoyed the whole process so much that I made it into a
business. So far I've had a handful of jobs and made some good connections, and I'm looking forward to growing the business this year.
February through June we were in reno upheaval. Our 80-year-old plumbing started leaking and we somehow decided, with impeccable North Toronto logic, that the only possible solution was to put a powder room in the basement and completely redo the upstairs bathroom. I've been meaning to post about that... It took a long time because our contractor usually runs much bigger jobs, and her trades were sneaking our bathroom in between other jobs. But when it was all finally done it was very satisfying and lovely.
In the middle of June one of the kindergarten students at the girls' school was hit by a car and killed. It shook up the staff and a lot of the parents pretty badly, and it's been on my mind a lot ever since. The little girl who died was the same age as Cordelia, and she was out with her mother when she was killed—actually her mum was hit by the car too. Imagine the fodder for rumination and imagination and nightmares that provided... It's a bit ridiculous that it would take something like this, but it made me understand that the continuing existence of my children is a gift. Anyway, that's a whole post on its own, really.
By the time I got back from Japan the girls' summer vacation was well underway. The girls were at camp for a couple of weeks, then we went to Saskatchewan for a couple of weeks, then shortly after we came back the girls went to the cottage for a long weekend with Baba and Zaida. I felt like the real mooching-around-Toronto part of summer didn't start until the middle of August, but then we did manage to do our usual round of the Toronto Islands, High Park, Harbourfront, and a few trips to the park. I love summer.
I have to say I don't think anything terrifically interesting has happened since September. Greg and I have been working on the second volume of the software architecture book. (This time I'm actually going to copyedit the book, which will both be fun and educational, and improve the book.) Cordelia likes Grade One, Delphine likes Grade Three, Cordelia likes gymnastics and Delphine likes ballet. We're all pretty content to carry on into the new year as we've been carrying on.
This poor blog has been sorely neglected, and especially the book blog. I feel like I haven't been reading much—I certainly don't get big blocks of time reading time very often—but I've managed to plough through a few books while brushing my teeth or waiting in line or taking the bus. I think these are most of them, although I always manage to forget a few.
(x) Did not care for
(hm) Made me think
Books I Read With Delphine
- All Creatures Great and Small and All Things Wise and Wonderful by James Herriot (**)
- Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J.K. Rowling
Kids' and Young Adult Fiction
- Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze by Alan Silberberg (**)
- Scars by Cheryl Rainfield (hm)
- Better Than Weird by Anna Kerz (**) (hm)
- Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis (**)
- Masked by Norah McClintock
- Knifepoint by Alex Van Tol
- Comeback by Vicki Grant (?)
- Rock Star by Adrian Chamberlain
- Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
Book Club Books
- The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien (?)
- The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett (x)
- Good to a Fault by Marina Endicott
- The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
- The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
- The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon (hm)
- Annabel by Kathleen Winter (**) (hm)
Pulp and Other Fiction
- Gideon's Sword by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child (x)
- Guilty as Sin by Joseph Teller
- The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
- Open Doors by Gloria Goldreich
- Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- Blackout by Connie Willis
- Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country's Foremost Relationship Expert by John Gottman and Nan Silver
- Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight by Linda Bacon (I know, right? Mmm, bacon...) (hm)
- Too Safe For Ther Own Good: How Risk and Responsibility Help Teens Thrive by Michael Ungar (?)
- Lapsing into a Comma: A Curmudgeon's Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print—and How to Avoid Them by Bill Walsh
- The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua (hm)
- Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (and Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer) by Stan Cox
- Wrong About Japan: A Father's Journey with His Son by Peter Carey
- Ah-choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold by Jennifer Ackerman
- Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves by Adam Hochschild (**) (hm)
Santa was good for family cohesiveness this year — he brought us lots of things to do together. Delphine got a build-your-own-catapult kit, Cordelia got a giant puzzle of Toronto, and we got three board games. We haven't opened the catapult or the puzzle yet, but the games have already seen a lot of use.
Apples to Apples, Jr.
Apples to Apples, Jr. is one of those games that makes you feel slightly stupid for having paid for the game and all the packaging, because there's nothing special about the game parts that you couldn't fabricate yourself. The creator's genius is in coming up with the game and getting it into production. And in this case I don't feel too bad about paying for it, because it's a really fun game.
What you get in the box are two sets of cards: red (nouns) and green (adjectives). Each player gets five nouns, and one player is the judge and selects an adjective. The non-judge players have to select from their hand the noun which most exemplifies the chosen adjective, and submit it without revealing which noun is theirs. Then the judge chooses—using criteria of their own choosing—the winning noun. Players are encouraged to advocate for their cards, and the game is more fun if the judge deliberates out loud.
We've enjoyed this game every time we play it, with every age group. It's best for readers, but even Cordelia can play if she has someone to help her with the words she isn't sure of. There is an adult version of the game which I can only imagine is extremely fun.
We have Lego Creationary, which I kind of like but I'm not really good at Lego, so I don't love it. I wasn't sure about Lego Champion, but we all like it way more.
The board is a track made (by you) of Lego, and each turn adds another piece to the board. Each turn also involves a challenge, a game the whole team plays to determine who will move forward a bonus amount.
There are five possible challenges which vary wildly in difficulty. In On Target everyone throws a Lego brick and tries to hit a target. Bluffing Bricks is a guessing game where everyone takes three blocks and then players take turns guessing how many of a particular colour there are, or calling the previous player's bluff. In Topple Tower players take turns balancing a successively larger Lego creation to the top of a tower: the first player plays one piece, the second player plays a two-piece object, the third plays a three-piece object, and so on. The trick is that you can't interlock your object to the tower. The last player to add to the tower without toppling it wins the challenge.
In Codebreaker, the challenger (the person whose turn it is) makes a three-brick code, and then other players have to figure it out by asking yes-or-no questions. And finally, in Speed Builder the challenger builds an eight-brick structure in secret, and the rest of the players race to duplicate it exactly.
Our favourite challenges are Topple Tower and Speed Builder. Bluffing Bricks is a little hard to understand, but once you've worked it out it can be a clever and fascinating exercise. I think you have to be quite a big of a game theory nerd, though; last night we played it with some friends and it was so confusing we ended up substituting Lego bowling when Bluffing Bricks came up on the dice. (Lego bowling is surprisingly challenging, it turns out, because the bowling ball (the dice) is cube-shaped and bouncy.)
The game play for Lego Champion is fairly quick and we've played it successfully with ages from six to adult. (Although Cordelia tends to amuse herself between turns by building things with the extra blocks.)
Trivial Pursuit Family Edition
For a long time I've imagined that it would be really nice if there were a trivia game with different questions for kids and adults. I looked here and there (although not on the Internet) for such a game with no luck. At the local games shop (which is admittedly really nerdy, catering mainly to the Chess, Go and D&D crowd and only reluctantly carrying a selection of mainstream board games) they had Nickleodeon and Disney Trivial Pursuits which depressingly advertised, "DVD Included! No reading! No adult participation required!" Well thank goodness for that.
Imagine my surprise when I found Trivial Pursuit Family Edition at Toys! Toys! Toys!, the second tackiest toy store in town. It is exactly as I imagined it, Trivial Pursuit with two sets of cards, one for kids and one for adults. The board is changed slightly to speed up game-play: half of the "roll again" spaces are now shortcuts to pie spaces, but even so Delphine and I have found that our two-person games drag on a little.
The kid questions are pitched perfectly for a well-read eight-year-old, so Delphine really enjoys it and gives me a run for my money. I am not sure how well this game would go over for a kid who doesn't read a lot or watch a lot of education TV. Cordelia basically can't play because there's too much reading and she doesn't know enough yet, although she has a nice time being on someone's team, for a while at least.
My only problem with this game is that it's American and the questions are heavily skewed to American history and geography. I suppose it's too much to ask that there be a Trivial Pursuit Canadian Family Edition...
I haven't posted about the girls for ages because Delphine's not totally comfortable with being the subject of a blog any more. I guess if you want to get to know Delphine better you'll have to either meet her or wait until she starts her own blog. But I might sneak in the odd post, like this one.
This week Delphine started Grade Three and Cordelia started Grade One. Cordelia wasn't excited about starting Grade One until a few days before, when her sister convinced her it would be fun. Delphine has had Cordelia firmly under her wing since school started: they entered the first day fray together (with strict instructions to us to stay out of the way) and they have been meeting up at recess and sharing snacks.
Both girls love their respective teachers. Delphine is in a 2/3 split which seems like it's going to be an awesome class. Cordelia is in a 1/2 split – I'm not sure who is in that class but I really like the teacher so I think it will be a good year for her, too.
More generally, Cordelia is still clinging to her baby status. She doesn't like to read, although I think she reads better than she likes to let on. She also flat-out refused to learn to ride a bike this summer, although she's learning to go like stink on the scooter to keep up with Big Sister. I'm curious to see what being in Grade One will do for her carefully maintained aura of incompetence. I'm pretty sure she steps up and shows her abilities when she's at school, and I think soon she's going to have to accept that we know that she can do stuff.
Cordelia has always had an affinity for numbers (as I expect I've mentioned) and her report card last year said "Cordelia shows an avid interest in math". I'm curious to see how that interest develops in Grade One's more advanced math.
Cordelia's my little maker. Her catchphrase is "I could use that for something!", whenever I try to throw away some interesting box or widget. And indeed, if I let her have the thing she will cut it up and glue some other bits to it and transform it into a building or a slide or a cat or some other creation. I so want to take her to a Maker Faire.
Around about when she turned eight Delphine transformed from a little kid into a pre-adolescent. I used to think "tween" was a nonsense marketing category, but there's a marked difference between seven and eight. She's got a new spirit, a little bit of sassiness and attitude, but not in a bad way; she's still polite and civil (mostly) but she's got opinions. A few of her rants: "Why do they change everything when they make movies out of books?!" (with a subrant: "'How to Train Your Dragon' was nothing like the book!"); "Everyone thinks Canadians live in igloos!"; "Why does everyone drive everywhere?!"; and one of my favourites, "Everyone else has a nice basement, why is ours is all gross?!" She's going through a bit of a noisy, self-righteous phase which, if she doesn't grow out of it, will serve her well on the Internet (or in the Computer Science Club) some day. But it all comes from noticing the greater world and realizing that there are different ways to be in it, and trying to work out what your choices say about you.
This year she's starting ballet, which will hopefully teach her self-discipline and maybe some humility (unless she turns out to be really good at it). She's still enjoying piano, and she's taking an art class with Cordelia. Perhaps a little overscheduled; we'll see how it goes.
The sad thing is, I wasn't all that hungry when I was in Japan. Normally I love to eat but I couldn't get excited about food, probably because of the heat and humidity. It's terribly ironic, to me, to go all that way to somewhere where I'd normally want to stuff my face and then not being interested. Fortunately I was hanging out with a person with a normal appetite, so we ate regularly and interestingly anyway. (If I had been by myself I might have just survived on bread and fruit juice, and that would have been a pity.)
My first meal in Japan was dinner: okonomiyaki at a cook-it-yourself restaurant near Ameyayokocho, with Dave and his friend Robert. We had a kind of miscellaneous omelette, fried enoki mushrooms in butter (so good!) and some sautéed greens. The greens came in their own little soup of cornstarchy sauce, which you are supposed to add gradually to the greens. After you have cooked the greens and sauce, you add a bunch of cheese, which suddenly changes the whole thing from sautéed greens to fried cheese with bits of greens. Tasty.
We also had a couple of flagons of Japan's Default Beer. You go into a restaurant and order "beer" and they bring you "beer", a glass mug of a cold, easy-drinking lager with a good inch of head on it. (Usually Asahi Super-Dry or Kirin Lager, I think.) It was the perfect drink in that weather, and Dave and I had one with almost every meal.
For the next morning's breakfast I had ordered the "Japanese breakfast" at my ryokan, and I was eager to find out what it entailed. It turned out to be rice, miso soup, some lightly-pickled sliced cucumber, steamed greens in a sweet sesame sauce, scrambled egg with tomato and orange on the side, and some grilled fish. Also green tea and a little package of nori. It was a lot of food and I didn't finish everything, which I'm sure is either completely insulting or totally acceptable. The fish was delicious: mild and slightly crispy on the outside.
For lunch that day I decided we should have sushi, since that's the quintessential Japanese food in my mind. Dave found us a conveyor belt sushi place where we had eel, salmon, tuna, tiny fish, tiny shrimp, and plenty more.
Later that afternoon we wandered to Harajuku, where the street eat of choice is crepes. This is curious because there aren't really any other street eats in Japan, apart from the odd soft-serve ice cream place — walking while eating just isn't done — but for some reason it's acceptable to eat a filled crepe folded into a cone while walking around Harajuku. I had ice cream, chocolate syrup and whipped cream in my crepe; I think Dave had bananas or apples in syrup or something similar. (Dave has lost lots of weight since moving to Japan by eating carefully and walking a lot; I think he must have had to eat even more carefully and walk even more after I left to make up for sharing my bad habits while I was there.)
For dinner that evening we went to a (chain?) restaurant which offered a variety of food: garlic cheese bread, pizza, shrimp chips, chicken. We had some gyoza and an assorted yakitori plate (grilled chicken parts on sticks; mmm, chicken kidneys). I think we also had something with cheese, but it's hard for me to say because I was rocking some serious jet lag and pretty much falling asleep on my plate.
Next day's Japanese breakfast was about the same, but with salmon instead of the mystery white fish.
We had ramen for lunch in Fujisawa, on the way to Enoshima. It was a rustic little restaurant, staffed only by two cooks behind the bar. You order by selecting and paying for your dish from a machine, then giving the resulting receipt to the cooks. It was delicious: the meat was tender, the noodles were soft with that particular chewiness you only get from freshly made noodles, and the broth was savoury and rich. (I wish I had been as hungry when I had it in front of me as I am now writing about it. Irony!)
It was on Enoshima that we had the mango softserve ice cream that I posted about earlier. It was almost like a mango sorbet, with enough creaminess to make it luxurious without cutting the refreshing fruitiness of the mango. Served in a twist ("mix") with vanilla it was like a creamsicle all grown up.
After Enoshima we went on a long train ride to a yakitori restaurant run by some friends of Dave's. We could have ridden the whole way in a standard JR train car, like a fancier subway car, but there's an option on JR (the rail company) to take a "Green car", a sort of first-class which is more like a double-decker GO train car — cushy reclining seats with a tray, and drink and snack service (with very cheap beer!)
The restaurant was like a pub, kind of dark and medieval with low ceilings and lots of wood. (Never mind the high-tech powered sliding door which are all-but ubiquitous in stores and restaurants.) The sink in the picture gives you an idea of the rough-hewn feel of the place.
Once again the food was delicious: we had grilled bits and pieces on sticks, mostly-raw chicken (I wasn't up for more than a taste of that), and hiyayakko, sliced tofu with soy sauce and fish flakes. (A.k.a., "That cold shit.", as Dave thinks of it.) Also more beer.
For Sunday's breakfast I requested "Western-style", as much because I wanted to see what they would do with it as because I craved familiar food. "Western-style" breakfast turns out to include back bacon, scrambled egg, a giant slab of toasted white bread, tomato and some orange. Also penne with sweet tomato sauce, and steamed broccoli. Of course.
We had lunch at a chain tonkatsu restaurant called Wako. I had a combo with pork medallions, a shrimp and some pumpkin, all breaded and deep-fried, as well as a haystack of shredded cabbage and the usual miso soup and bowl of white rice. There was a side of mayo, for what I'm not sure (I made the cabbage into coleslaw with it). Also chawan mushi, a savoury custard. The tonkatsu was crispy and delicious and the pile of cabbage was a refreshing change from the analogous pile of french fries you would get on this side of the Pacific. It, as well as the miso soup (I think) were bottomless — you could hail the waitress and she would come over with a enormous bowl of shredded cabbage and pile another stack of it on your plate.
Having had a tasty plate of deep fried for lunch, we set out vaguely in search of something healthy for dinner. I moved to a hotel in Saitama on Sunday, so we were in Saitama for dinner, and had a choice of the usual suspects: ramen, sushi, and so on. We eventually talked each other into Korean barbeque and decided to be healthy another day.
Most Japanese restaurants have pictures of all the dishes they offer, but the interesting thing about Korean barbeque is that the food in the pictures is still raw. I guess that's not the most interesting thing — the most interesting thing is that the food they bring to your table is still raw. Each table is fitted with its very own little fire pit, some intrepid young man comes by with a bucket of hot coals and skillfully sets it into place, and then you use cunning little tongs to cook everything to your taste. We had some delicious strips of beef and placated the gods of healthy eating by roasting up some assorted veggies.
There was no breakfast at my hotel in Saitama, so on Monday morning I ventured out on my own to find something to eat. It seems like an odd choice, but I found it at 7/11. They have a decent selection of cellophane-wrapped pastries, so I bought brioche sort of thing, and added a can of delicious Boss Caffe Latte from the vending machine in the hotel lobby.
Lunch led us on an epic train journey to Utsonomiya, the world's gyoza capital, for (that's right) gyoza. We went to a tiny restaurant and ordered their special plate of 12 gyoza*, all different (and beer!) There were pork, shrimp, chicken, kim chee, pork and shiso, and some more which were delicious but not readily identifiable. (I actually left the kim chee dumpling; it was just too spicy for lightweight me — Dave helped me out with it.)
(The more I write this post the sadder I am that I had no appetite to speak of while I was in Tokyo. Everything was good but it would have been even better if I had been hungry.)
By dinner time I was craving a Pickle Barrel big salad. I don't know what it says about me that when I'm in a foreign country full of exotic, delicious food I crave the most pedestrian Western food, but there it is. All I desired was a giant bowl of crispy iceberg lettuce, ham, eggs, and chicken smothered in some unctuous dressing. There is about 0% chance of finding that anywhere in Tokyo, let alone Saitama. We wandered around sussing out various restaurants and finally chose an odd little second-floor pub, advertising $3 beer in the window. (We weren't sure whether $3 beer was a good sign or not, food-wise, but we figured at least it meant there would be $3 beer.)
The place was decorated in a blackened-wood and fishing nets motif. We got ourselves a beer, and ordered what might be the closest thing to my big salad you'd find in Tokyo: a green salad with sashimi. It was delicious, and hit the spot. We also had shrimp and cheese sticks — shrimp with cheese rolled in an egg roll wrapper and fried — and I think Dave ordered some other stuff I either didn't try or tried and didn't remember.
On Tuesday my 7/11 breakfast was a boiled egg (individually wrapped) and a Georgia Iced Coffee. I thought the Georgia Iced Coffee would be pretty much the same as the Boss Iced Coffee, but it was much more bitter and metallic-tasting. I learned from Dave, later, that all the different iced coffee brands have distinctive flavours, and I just lucked into the one I like best first try.
We were down at Tokyo Bay at lunchtime — I wanted to check out Tokyo's "Harbourfront". There's a big mall down there (Doug Ford take note!) and they were having some kind of ramen festival in one of the food courts. (Or else one of the food courts was set up to simulate a perpetual ramen festival; now that I think about it I'm not quite sure which.) I had a hankering for eel, so I ordered something which looked like a delicious bowl of ramen with eel on top. Turns out the colour reproduction on the picture was a little off, and I got a delicious bowl of ramen with two slices of boiled bacon on top. (Dave tells me it was Okinawa-style ramen, which is of course different from the various other kinds of ramen.) I know boiled bacon sounds disgusting, but it was smoky and tender. I expect if you tried boiling Canadian mass market bacon it would fall apart or go slimy, but I think if you got good bacon from a butcher it would boil up nicely. Try it in soup!
I also had some melon soda. Melon is a big flavour over there, although it seemed more vaguely fruity than tasting of any melon I'm familiar with.
After we walked around the waterfront some more we had kakigori, which is like a sno-cone or granita or whatever they call flavoured ice where you are. I chose Blue Hawaii flavour, which is... blue. And sweet. It was delicious, just the thing to eat while sitting by the water and sweating gently.
Our next stop was Tokyo Tower, where I had a piece of cheesecake at the restaurant up top. Cheesecake seems to be quite popular in Tokyo, and I was curious as to how it was interpreted. It was softer and smoother than a New York-style cheesecake, and had a nice sharp cream cheesy bite.
Dinner was fancy, at the Chou Chou Dinning Room (not to be confused with Tony's Fine Dinning, a roti place up on Sheppard). Like many restaurants in Tokyo, it was on the second floor — Tokyoites don't have our aversion to going up a level or two to eat or shop. The restaurant was beautiful; we entered on a transparent walkway over a mock riverbed of white stones. Shiny dark wood and elegant lighting set a mood of quiet refinement.
Keeping with the classy style of the place, I refrained from ordering my usual beer and had a grapefruit sour instead. We ordered chicken gyoza and little fish baked in phyllo, with the heads still on. But the highlight of the meal was the risotto, a creamy sweet-savoury delight.
Wednesday was my last day in Tokyo. My final 7/11 breakfast was a green bun filled with cantaloupe-flavoured custard. Why was it green? Green tea? Melon? Mint? It's hard to say, and the flavour wasn't much help. The custard was delicious, though, and not something I'm likely to ever get in Toronto. I also had a tub of yogurt in a vague attempt to eat some protein, and, sadly, my last can of Boss Caffe Latte.
Dave and I decided that my last meal in Tokyo should be the iconic conveyor belt sushi, so for lunch we ducked into a really cheap little place. It was fascinating — they had laid out the restaurant so that the conveyor belt wound round into every cranny of the odd-shaped room, so it formed an irregular, jagged L-shape and we had to shuffle sideways behind half the other diners to get to our chairs.
I didn't realize how cheap the place was until Dave pointed out they were serving fake wasabi. But even the cheapest saddest Tokyo sushi is still fresh and delicious; really, the only thing that distinguished it from more expensive sushi was that the rolls were slightly misshapen. We had the usual selection of tuna, salmon, and clam. Dave scooped himself a plate of natto sushi, and I had some alarmingly tacky shrimp salad sushi, while I amused myself trying to think what you could serve conveyor-belt style in a Canadian restaurant: sandwiches? Salads? It's such a great way to have lunch: fast, fresh and cheap.
My very last Japanese food purchase was a can of peach soda from a vending machine in the airport. Even though I was only there for a week, the idea of Japanese vending machines has lodged itself in my brain, to the extent that whenever I go to a public park in Toronto I'm always briefly disappointed that I can't buy myself a can of coffee or a soda from a handy vending machine.
I love eating in other countries; you learn so much about a place from what and how they eat. I loved the little plates, which allow you to try lots of different things, and to eat as much as you like and no more. I liked the way everyone orders together and shares the food. I think the Japanese custom of not eating while walking is healthy and sensible (although it would take me more than a week to get out of the habit). And I liked the food itself: everything (apart from my 7/11 delights) was freshly made from excellent ingredients. Tokyo is a great destination if you like to eat.